Like Kaufman's work, "Special" is a dark and layered comedy of the mind, a more intimate but as hilarious "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," with an equally potent mixture of warmth and melancholia at its center. By uniting a Sundance veteran like Rapaport (whose career was launched at Sundance in 1992's "Zebrahead") with two gifted newbies, the film is also a perfect emblem of the festival's ongoing and far-reaching contribution to independent cinema.
The film begins in well-worn comic territory, with Rapaport as Les, a Los Angeles meter-maid and dork with a heart of gold. In trouble at work because he frequently tears up tickets when handed a sob story by parking violators, Les' fantasy life revolves around dreams of empowerment derived mostly from comic books with titles like "Iron Woman" and "Time Traveler." Like a lot of people in America in the 21st century, Les isn't unhappy exactly, but he does live with a fear articulated in the film's literate but entirely believable narration when Les recounts the story of a man whose soul was taken from him night after night for 16 years in increments so small he never noticed the irrevocable loss.
In a shrewd parody of the prescription drug industry and its penchant for turning everyday mental moods into profit centers, Les agrees to participate in a medical study for a new compound with the snide brandname "Special," a drug in the last phases of clinical trial designed to eliminate self-doubt. Thousands have taken the medication without side-effects, but Les is the exception to prove the rule: Within hours of his first dose, Les is levitating around his apartment, and he can soon read minds and walk through walls, just like a comic book hero.
Only he can't, actually. He only thinks he can. Les is having a psychotic drug reaction; along with his self-doubt, his grip on reality has also been eradicated. It's this novel twist that lifts a movie with a premise that's otherwise so high-concept it's already been made into any number of awful mainstream comedies from obviousness to greatness. From the moment Rapaport's Les creates his own Unabomber-ish leather costume and decorates it with a logo for the drug that remade him, comedy and tragedy co-exist in this film on equal terms. It's a visual as well as a conceptual duality, as "Special" moves assuredly between Les' hallucinatory self-perceptions and the outer reality, often dramatizing his delusions of grandeur but then giving us the resultant nosebleed he got from running into the wall he thinks he just ran through. It's funny but sorrowful stuff, played beautifully, as Rapaport puts flesh and blood and life into a psychotropic Walter Mitty, a surrogate for every nebbish who ever wished to enact his most omnipotent fantasies of greatness in a world that knows otherwise.
In Les' world, his special gifts can never be honored, but Passmore and Haberman find an offbeat way to celebrate them all the same. They've also found a way to honor the ferocious and too often overlooked talents of Michael Rapaport, who in a better world would be recognized as the De Niro of his generation he so clearly is. "Special" is a movie with a strong concept, a terrific performance, and a brilliant script from two hot emerging talents. If Hollywood doesn't know what to do with all of that, maybe Les should put on his magic leathers and kick somebody's ass. Starring Michael Rapaport, Paul Blackthorne and Josh Peck. Directed and written by Jeremy Passmore and Hal Haberman. Produced by Ed Parks and Frank Mele. No distributor set. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 84 min